Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Small gestures

It's the last day of the year -- of the decade. I had dinner with a close friend of my parents, and the conversation turned to, a bit unexpectedly, a common (though, for me, long dormant) interest: Hindustani classical music. From the age of 8, till about 20, I had received regular vocal training in the Agra gharana (style of classical music). In Bombay, my guruji was the late Batukbhai Diwanji -- an erudite musicologist, music critic, and chronicler of Bombay's music scene; a tremendously fascinating character, a talented singer in his own right, and a very patient teacher. Recently, I had received a short article about Batukbhai and a mid-20th century Bombay musical event I had never heard of. He passed away in 2014, it seems, at the venerable age of 96. I had lost touch with him after moving to the US in the late1990s.

Hindustani classical music -- as beautiful as it is, and as much as I still enjoy listening to it -- never quite pierced my soul as the musical heritage of the Church, with life changing, and life shaping consequences. That's another story.

Lots of memories indeed -- all the baithaks in folks' homes, and concerts -- at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chowpatty, and the huge "Aprachalit Raag" concert sponsored by The Times Group for their Sesquicentennial (1990), and of course JanFest, the annual 3-day festival put on by IMG (the student led Indian Music Group at St. Xavier's). What stands out in sharp relief is just how much the culture of Hindustani music -- and musicians -- was evidence of the cross-pollination of the main religious traditions of India. So, for instance, one would have a Muslim artist singing a bandish (composition) quite often expressing sakhi bhav (the love of the soul for God) manifested in the playful amorous dalliances of the Hindu deity Krishna with his gopis (cow-herding girls).



Ustad Faiyaz Khan, perhaps one of the greatest Hindustani vocalists of the 20th century, singing "Mathura na ja" in Raag Purvi. "Don't go to Mathura, o Kanha [Krishna]."

When we lived in Ahmedabad, in the 1980s, I received taleem (training) from Ustad Hamid Hussein Khan. I recall one evening, where after our riyaz (practice), Khansaheb stayed on for some tea and snacks. My father had just come back home from work. And somehow, Khansaheb waxed eloquent on the battle of Karbala, which is at the heart of the Shii' Muslim story and identity. I was about 10 years old. I wish I had paid more attention. What I do remember is that every time he referred to the Prophet -- for whom he used the Persian title peghumbar -- he piously touched his earlobes.

One bandish I had learned from Khansaheb starts "Bina hari kaun meri khabar layt," a fairly common bandish in raag Bhairav.  बिना हरी कौन मेरी खबर लेत "Other than God, who will look after me?" Almost as an aside Khansaheb stated, oh, it's actually "Allah bin kaun" using the Arabic (i.e., in India, Muslim) name for God, as opposed to the Hindi hari. "When we teach Hindus, we use these words, however."

A tiny gesture -- but one of many -- respecting different dietary customs, for instance, or greeting each other during major festivals;  rejoicing in each other's joys and mourning each other's griefs -- that remind us of the fact that in India we have a long and old tradition of living alongside each other.

I just spent a wonderful Christmas in the Holy Land, and had the amazing opportunity to concelebrate Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. A few days prior, I finally visited Yad Vashem, and felt again, viscerally, the horror of hatred that the Jewish people have endured. Yet, perhaps more than on other visits, the conflict between two peoples was really starkly visible, especially at the security check point crossing back into Jerusalem from the West Bank, as every Palestinian aboard the bus got off to be questioned individually. In India, the country is being convulsed by the cynically divisive politics of the ruling party, as manifested in the ongoing agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

We need many more tiny gestures, that acknowledge the humanity of our neighbors. That respect their customs. That say, "you exist, and this is good." Yes we need a lot more too. But each of us can make small gestures of peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, a wandering Jew (the Savior!) once said.

This is the first time in my life I find myself at the end of a year with both my parents gone. They inculcated the love of music in me (which drew me, ultimately, to Christ ...). They were both committed to an India that cherished her traditions of diverse peoples living in peace and harmony. It is my hope that what they have taught me, which has served me so well so far, will continue to do so in the New Year and the rest of my earthly life.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Ex Voto


After the Spanish Mass, a young couple approached me at the back of the church and asked if I would accompany them to the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They held a tiny infant — “She’s three weeks old. We had made a promise (voto) to Our Lady that if she was born safely, we’d go to church and go to her image on our knees.” The grandparents and godmother of the mother were also present. The child was tiny — clearly she was premature, and this had been a difficult pregnancy.

So I prayed with them, and said I’d wait for them by the statue of Our Lady. Then all five of them started their crawl up the aisle on their knees, one holding the child, another a vase of flowers, and a third, a statue of the Divino Niño, the infant Jesus. Silently. When they reached their destination, I led them in praying an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, had them light a votive candle, and gave them a blessing. They laid the flowers at the foot of the statue, and stayed on in quiet prayer.

“¡Ahora, no olviden del bautismo!” Don’t forget about the baptism, I gently reminded them. “¡Claro que sí, Padre!” The grandparents and godmother are parishioners, The young couple lives in a different state, and were visiting — she is one of 10 siblings, scattered around the Southeast.

It was a very moving experience. It’s my first experience of this kind of votive offering being requested. I’ve done numerous “juramentos” (oaths, or promises made usually by young men, who swear off alcohol for a determined period, and want the Padre to lead them in a prayer in front of the statue of Our Lady, a very common practice in Mexico, and among Mexicans in the US.) But I hadn’t yet seen this.

To the rationalist, modern, secular mind, this is all so medieval. We’re oh-so enlightened, and beyond all this mumbo-jumbo. (But even the oh-so-secular person cannot help but conceive of the “universe” as a sentient actor with intentions and designs ... always for our good!) To the “Bible-believing” Protestant, this smacks of superstition and paganism ...

... and indeed, the idea of a “votive offering” (from the Latin “voto” - “promise”) is a universal phenomenon in the human religious landscape. I recall a visit to the shrine of the local Hindu deity Khandoba in Jejuri near Pune in south-central India, decades ago (accompanied by a Jesuit friend). Pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees, or with their legs tied to heavy metal chains or blocks of metal — a promise they had made to obtain the favor of the deity. At the tombs of any pir (Sufi saint) in India — whether Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, Haji Ali in the middle of a bay in Mumbai, or Salim Chishti in Agra (I’ve not been to the most popular destination, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s tomb in Ajmer), pilgrims tie color strings to the grill near the tomb, making a “mannat” (promise), of some kind of hardship or penance, in order to receive a favor.

Authentic Catholic culture takes the nature desires of the human heart — including the desires that are manifest everywhere in folk religion — and purifies and transforms them in Christ, who revealed to us the face of the Father who loves His children. Indeed, the Bible too, knows this kind of offering — think of the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6, which early Christians, including St. Paul himself took  (Acts 18, and 21). And certainly Christian culture and tradition, both East and West, is no stranger to similar practices ... even down to our day — whether it be those who ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees in Rome, or a Mexican family in the mountains of North Georgia who fulfill their “voto” to the Virgin after a difficult childbirth.


(Ex Voto offerings — a painting from the early 20th century giving thanks for protection in war, and a wall of medals of thanksgiving, from the Shrine of Our Lady of Montenero in Tuscany. Jan. 2014.) 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

On the "Latin Mass" ...

St. Josemaría Escriva offering Holy Mass.

Two recent pieces by Matthew Schmitz of First Things that are worth a glance: One in the UK Catholic Herald, and another in the NYT, (what? In the NYT???) on what is colloquially called the "Latin Mass," more formally, the "Extraordinary Form" or the "usus antiquior" or less technically correct, the "Tridentine Mass."
What I find fascinating is the absolute horror, vehement opposition, and worse, that the ancient Mass elicits amongst the clergy, particularly older clergy. I've seen this first hand.

Monday, July 03, 2017

St. Thomas and India

The large 16th century monolithic granite cross at Kaduthuruthy Palli

I'm in India on the patronal Feast of St. Thomas. (St. Francis Xavier is the other Patron ... ). The gift travel writer (and historian and author), William Dalrymple had a neat account of the historicity of the claim that St. Thomas founded the Church in India, in a piece in The Guardian dating from 2000.
The more you investigate the evidence, the more irresistible is the conclusion that whether or not St Thomas himself came to India, he certainly could have. And if he didn't make the journey, it seems certain that some other very early Christian missionary did, for there is certainly evidence for a substantial Christian population in India by at least the third century.
And if there is no documentary proof to clinch the case, there is at least a very good reason for its absence: for the entire historical documentation of the St Thomas Christians was reduced to ashes in the 16th century - not by Muslims or Hindus, but by a newly arrived European Christian power: the Portuguese. As far as the Portuguese colonial authorities were concerned, the St Thomas Christians were heretics, an idea confirmed by their belief in astrology and reincarnation, and the Hindu-style sculptures of elephants and dancing girls found carved on their crosses.
It's absolutely worth a read.

Church Father expert extraordinaire, author, and friend, Mike Aquilina also has a helpful blog post on St. Thomas ... I've no idea why I've not taken up his suggested reading list so far ...
Some critical scholars (of course) dismiss the accounts of Thomas in India. But India’s historians have subjected the evidence to rigorous scrutiny in recent years, and even many Hindus have come to affirm its possibility and even probability. I’m definitely with them, and I hope to write a book on the subject in the not too distant future. I invite you to read a couple of books and study the matter for yourself. They’re not available in the United States, so you have to order them from India. (For such purchases I have received the best service from Merging Currents, a U.S.-based import company.) The books are A.M. Mundadan’s History of Christianity in India (Volume 1: From the Beginning up to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century) and George Menachery’s massive collection The Nazranies.
In 2010, I made my first (and to date only) visit to Kerala, where St. Thomas first arrived. This included a sanctuary in Kodungallur (Cranganore), where St. Thomas first landed .. .

Reliquary containing the bones of the arm of St. Thomas, Kodungaullur (Cranganore)
Mar Thoma Gate, Kodungallur
St. Thomas shrine, Kodungallur ...

... as well as the fascinating church at Kaduthuruthy (Kadhuthuruthy Valiya Palli). There's been a church on this site since at least the 4th century. The big granite cross dates from the 16h century, at the time of increasing Portuguese influence and interference. One can see pre-European Indian Christian motifs in the artwork at the base of the cross, as well as Babylonian/Chaldean motifs on the facade of the current church. What the Portuguese did to the cultural and religious heritage of the Thomas Christians was truly criminal ...


Virgin and child, Kaduthuruthy cross

Indian motifs, Kaduthuruthy cross 
Altar

Facade, with Chaldean motifs

Friday, June 30, 2017

A curiosity

My nephew found some old letters and papers lying around at my folks' place - old letters my father had sent to my mother, other correspondence from half a lifetime ago. [There were also some letters addressed to me -- two in Russian from friends in Kazakhstan (that'll be another blog post!) and letters a friend from my pre-teen years had written after she'd moved away. I'd completely forgotten about those, and had no idea I'd saved them!]

Then there was this:


It is addressed to my great-grandfather, my father's grandfather, who was, we know, a lawyer. The only address given, in fact is his title, "Vakil" (lawyer), and the name of the town. It was enough for the post office, apparently ...

It seems to be a letter detailing currency notes that were being sent from the Imperial Bank of India in Bombay to him. It also seems that several of these were being sent in halves. Upon acknowledgment of  receipt of the first  dispatch, the remaining halves would be sent on. Presumably this was a way to ensure security. I'd never heard of this, but a brief Google search revealed that this was not an unknown practice .... Of course, we have no idea what my pardada was doing receive the sum of rupees five hundred and fifty three and three annas in such an exotic manner. Rs. 553-5-0 in 1931 would be somewhere near Rs. 1,20,000 today (~1850 USD today), no small amount. (Nor, for that matter, can we figure out what this transaction is. Or why eighteen annas are to be given as postage due to the Public Debt Office ... so many questions!)

The Imperial Bank of India doesn't exist anymore. It became the State Bank of India in 1955, five years after the Republic of India came into existence.

In April, 1931, my late father was 1 year old. I had no idea he'd preserved this curious letter. I suspect  its curiosity is what motivated him to keep it, to be discovered by his grandson, four generations and eighty six years after my great grandfather received it. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

"Zeal for thy house will consume me"

St. Paul at the Areopagus (Raphael, c. 1515)
[Homily preached at St. Andrew's Catholic Church on May 24, 2017, at a Mass in honor of the transitional deacon candidates of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.]

“Almighty God …
You grant that the Church, his body,
adorned with manifold heavenly graces,
drawn together in the diversity of its members,
and united by a wondrous bond through the Holy Spirit, should grow and spread forth
to build up a new temple
and, as once you chose the sons of Levi
to minister in the former tabernacle,
so now you establish three ranks of ministers
in their sacred offices to serve in your name.”

This is from the Prayer of Consecration of the Rite of Ordination of a Deacon, which Archbishop Gregory will be praying over y’all, brothers, in just a few days.  

The triple rank of Holy Orders in the New Covenant is foreshadowed by the choosing of the sons of Levi to minister in the tabernacle of the old Covenant. Deacons are often referred to as Levites in the liturgical books … for instance in the Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, which perhaps some of you might be chanting next year, he calls himself an unworthy member of the tribe of Levi.
So this got me thinking – what is it about the tribe of Levi that it received this particular honor and blessing? There was already a priesthood, from Aaron … why the Levites? In Deuteronomy, when Moses is blessing the twelve tribes, of Levi he says, "Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Mer'ibah; who said of his father and mother, 'I regard them not'; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed thy word, and kept thy covenant.” (Deut. 33:8)

Levi, who regarded not his father and his mother, and disowned his brothers and ignored his children.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

One Week, Three Airlines: Southwest


I'm a happy Medallion flier with Delta. However, this year's post-Holy Week/Easter time away required a reasonably priced one-way ticket up to Washington Dulles on Easter Monday morning. Delta was exorbitant. Southwest was about half the cost, for an 8:50 am departure. So, I signed up for a Rapid Rewards account and purchased the ticket ...